Warming up before training is something we should all do, to prepare for the lesson and to avoid injuries. Although this is usually common knowledge, information about HOW to warm up before martial arts practice is perhaps less common, and there is (unfortunately) a lot of bad advice and out of date ideas floating around.
At Liverpool HEMA, we approach warming up in a relatively simple and straight-forward way. In this article, I would like to share some of our common exercises and strategies, after first setting out some fundamentals.
The purpose of the warm up
The purpose of warming up is to get the blood flowing, to increase the heartbeat a little, and to generally loosen the body and prepare it for the exercise that is going to follow. It may also serve to help people “get their head in the game”, by switching off their thoughts about work and bringing attention to the physical activity at the club.
The warm up is not supposed to make people stronger, or better fencers, or anything like that. The purpose is to prepare the body for the following activity. Simple.
Physical training is not warming up
Physical training normally takes the form of strength and endurance exercises such as running, push ups, star jumps, and suchlike. The exercises are designed to build strength or stamina in some fashion, and they tend to leave you feeling tired or even exhausted.
It is painfully common to see martial arts clubs begin their “warm up” by running in circles around a hall for five or ten minutes, then doing some number of repetitions of push ups, sit ups, star jumps, crawls, bunny hops, some more push ups, and so on. By the end of the “warm up”, everyone is tired, their muscles are sore, and everyone feels like they have done quite a lot of work.
Although common, that is not a very effective way to warm up. In fact, people in a gym will probably (should probably!) do a warm up before launching into their physical training routine, because many exercises are stressful for the body and therefore the body requires some preparation beforehand.
There’s nothing wrong with doing some physical training AFTER the warm up. Different clubs and instructors may have different reasons for choosing to include it or leave it out – personally, I don’t bother with it at the club, because we only have limited time each week to have a sword in hand, and people come to my sword fighting club to do sword fighting, so I feel that is what we should be doing. People can do physical training in their own time any day of the week, but they have the relatively rare opportunity to spend time training HEMA with me, so that is what we want to focus on in the club.
Specificity of exercises
Different exercises are useful for different purposes. Typically, you would be better to utilise exercises that are useful for the activity you want to do. Running is good for runners, but not so much for swimmers; push ups are good for building certain muscles, but probably not so helpful if you play table tennis.
If you want to get better at fencing, then you should use fencing-related exercises. The best exercise for any given activity is probably that activity itself, or at least exercises that have a direct correlation with that activity. You can always go for a run in your spare time if you want to get better at running, but if you want to get better at HEMA, then you should do more HEMA and HEMA-related things.
Different types of stretching
There are (very broadly) two types of stretching: static and dynamic.
Static stretching is when you hold a stretch in one position for some length of time (30 seconds, a minute, whatever) before releasing. It is a good way to improve flexibility in your own time or after a session. However, it is not so helpful to do this before training.
Dynamic stretching is when you move in such a way that the movement creates some gentle stretching. For example, swinging your leg upward in front of you, rather than holding a similar stretching position on the ground (because that would be static). This is an ideal way to loosen off before training.
There are many scientific articles in reputable scientific journals that all demonstrate that dynamic stretching is better than static stretching before beginning to do your training. It achieves similar results in terms of loosening your body, and does so with fewer potentially harmful side effects. When using static stretches before training, there is a higher chance of receiving an injury during the training, which is of course less than ideal.
After the training, as part of a cool down, static stretches are great. They can really help you avoid some of the post-training pains and aches. For doing some general stretching at home, to loosen off after a long day sitting at a desk, or to work on improving your flexibility, static stretches are again very useful. They just have no place in a warm up before training.
Warming up with sword in hand
I figure there are two ways of warming up: with sword in hand, and without. If we can warm up with sword in hand, performing actions and motions that are somewhat related to HEMA, then this is probably better than the alternative. It is usually helpful to do more repetitions, and most practitioners could probably benefit from more repetitions of basic techniques.
Therefore, our warm up usually starts by making some simple repetitions of large Oberhaw cuts from over the head. We don’t strike fast or hard, we just draw big circles in the air with our swords. I will often encourage students to exaggerate the motions a little, drawing the largest possible circle in the air, so that the shoulders are put through their full range of motion.
Then we might add another cut, and make a little cutting sequence. It could perhaps be a right Oberhaw then a left Underhaw, followed by a left Oberhaw and right Underhaw; it could be a right Oberhaw, straight thrust, Abnehmen passing through the overhead position, left Oberhaw, straight thrust, Abnehmen passing through the overhead position, etc. The choice of sequence doesn’t really matter (although if it can be a sensible sequence found in the sources that may be useful in fencing, so much the better) since the purpose is just to draw some big shapes in the air and generally move with the sword. Meyer’s four openings drill is often a good way to structure cutting exercises.
This has the advantage of being an example of dynamic stretching – as long as the motions are large. If the motions are short and tight, then they will not help us stretch and loosen off. By taking the opportunity to make big shapes in the air with the sword, we gain the ability to stretch our various joints in a gentle and dynamic fashion, preparing the body for the main training to follow.
Footwork in the warm up
I have written previously about how to train footwork to make it effective in sparring. That means we incorporate different footworks into our cutting sequences, so that the feet can practise making a variety of steps independently of specific handworks.
We might make some small steps, we might make larger steps. We might step forwards or out to the sides. These steps can also serve to loosen off the body and to prepare for the main training to follow.
Wrestling in the warm up
Wrestling is a great full-body workout. It requires the engagement of the whole body, and gets the blood flowing and the heart beating! As a result, some simple pushing games can help people warm up and get into a more helpful frame of mind for the practice ahead.
I wouldn’t suggest that people begin a session by doing fully-fledged grappling with takedowns, throws, and submission holds – that’s not really a warm up anymore! But we often play some simple pushing games so that people remember how to engage their whole bodies to achieve a physical task after a long day in the office.
How long does warming up take?
Well, how long does it take you to feel warm and loose? I typically spend between 5 and 10 minutes on these various exercises, and that’s usually enough time for everyone to feel ready and prepared for the lesson. I see no need to make it any longer than that, because any time taken away from learning about sword fighting is lost time in a sword fighting lesson.
I might suggest that if you need more time than this to warm up and be ready for training, you might benefit from doing some personal warming up before the class begins. You don’t have to do anything fancy or difficult; just move a little, loosen off, and give yourself a little extra preparation time. Your body will appreciate it!
At Liverpool HEMA, we prioritise the sword fighting during class time, and so we keep the warm up simple in order to get to the sword fighting swiftly. We try and use exercises and movements with sword in hand, so that even the warm up is contributing useful repetitions to our practice. We try and make our warm up relevant so that we benefit from the specificity of the exercises.
What sort of warm ups do you do in your club, and why? What are you achieving with them? Is there a more effective way to achieve the same goal? If you are doing “warm up” exercises just because that’s what you have always done (or that you have always seen being done) then maybe it is time to shake up your approach and improve things.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.